Aid and Pessimism

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Sam Rosenfeld has a very good TAPPED post about aid to Africa, noting that while turning poor African countries into democracies with 10 percent GDP growth a year is very hard, spending a bit of money to provide them with bed nets for malaria is not. That’s right. I think, though, he’s attacking a straw man here. Very few “aid critics,” even William Easterly, think that modest steps like sending malaria nets to Africa are useless. Easterly would probably laud it as the sort of thing we should be doing. But that’s not what people like Jeffrey Sachs are proposing.

Sachs argues that you can’t solve one poverty problem without solving a whole host of others, and wants to send nations not just malaria nets but trees that replenish nitrogen in the soil, rainwater harvesting, better health clinics, etc. etc. The UN Millenium Project is very broad, and as such, is open to the usual criticisms. In fact, critics of Jeffrey Sachs sometimes cite the Gates Foundation’s malaria net work as their preferred, more modest alternative. See the end of this piece, for instance.

Now as it happens, I think Sachs’ broad approach is a good one. Even if only an eighth of UN aid makes its way to those who need it, that’s still a lot more than before. And as I reported here, aid to developing countries is generally more effective than it’s given credit for, and much of the squandered trillions in African aid in years past can be explained away by the fact that there was a Cold War going on, and first world nations didn’t exactly hand out aid with humanitarian ends in mind. Yes, there are a lot of sorely-needed ways to improve the aid process, and aid alone won’t save any country, but on balance, it does more good than harm. (The benefits of increased trade, meanwhile, while certainly positive and worth reaping, are generally overstated.) Plus, at the margins, you get stuff like malaria nets that have concrete results.

But that’s not to say aid—even very modest aid like providing malaria nets—won’t do any harm whatsoever. Unless African countries can figure out how to grow, they’ll remain dependent on humanitarian aid, which, while not the worst thing in the world, is dangerously tentative. And squandered aid—even if it’s still doing some good—can discourage donors from working in Africa. It can even help prop up dictatorships. There are a lot of things to worry about. But it’s true, the pessimists about aid to Africa sometimes go too far.

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